By OLU ALEMORU, Staff Writer
A young African man, appearing to be in his late teens or early twenties, charmingly sings the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton hit “Islands in the Stream” to his teenage sweetheart.
The young man subsequently walks the girl home and they arrive at a scene where machete-armed soldiers are about to massacre a group of people cowered on their knees.
The couple is waved away.
He is Hutu and she is Tutsi, and she will later find her parents butchered in the Rwandan ethnic genocide that claimed close to 800,000 lives, most of them Tutsi, from April-July 1994.
That’s the mosaic presented in the opening scene of “Kinyarwanda,” the searing directorial debut from Alrick Brown, which is the second movie released under AFFRM, the African-American Film Releasing Movement.
The film, which had a star-studded premiere Monday night in Hollywood for the American Film Institute Festival’s World Cinema category, opens theatrically Dec. 2 at the Laemmle Musical Hall Theater on Wilshire Boulevard.
Born in Jamaica, Brown grew up in New Jersey and spent years living in Africa following a post-college stint in the Peace Corps.
His film paints an engrossing, often difficult to watch tapestry that weaves six true stories of the genocide into a single narrative.
The title refers to a common language that both Hutus and Tutsis — who today just refer to themselves as Rwandans — speak and had unified them.
“I see myself as a child of the diaspora and the movie came about because I actually lived in West Africa for several years as a Peace Corps volunteer,” Brown said.
“I left West Africa and ended up at NYU graduate film school and a [Peace Corps] buddy of mine moved to Rwanda and befriended the film’s executive producer, Ishmael Ntihabose. I began to email Ishmael back and forth for several years and then in 2009 he got a grant to do a film about the Muslim impact on the genocide, the lives they saved and the co-operation between the Rwandan Imam and priests.”
Brown continued: “Ishmael called and asked me to come and help him make the movie and that’s pretty much how it happened; I was just trying to help another filmmaker. When I got there I realized there were a lot of stories to be told about the genocide and we decided to do a story that encompassed a more comprehensive look at what happened.”
Armed with a $250,000 grant from the European Film Fund and the invaluable cooperation of the Rwandan government, Brown said they shot the movie in just 16 days, describing it as a “do or die” affair.
“I wrote the script in a few weeks, we had a couple of weeks of rehearsal prep,” he explained.
“Our casting director, Simon Iyarwema, brought me some amazing local people who were committed and wanted to do it, then he brought a couple of Rwandans, who had some experience in other films. We made Rwandans, who had been PA’s on other films, heads of departments. That allowed us to have more authenticity, because most of our cast and crew had a firsthand knowledge of the genocide and that kept us honest.”
Recalling the actual events of 1994, when he was in a high school senior, Brown reveals with a touch of irony that he “wasn’t even sure if he cared that much.”
“I vaguely came across it in the news,” the director recalled.
“I was cognizant, you know, I wondered what had happened, [but] it just seemed like another, evil, tribal warfare kind of thing. The following year, I watched a PBS documentary when I was in college and it struck me hard because in the film I saw Americans and Rwandans who were friends at the embassy.
“They were all standing in a group and all of the Americans were getting ready to leave on a plane. They took everything, [even] their pet dogs, but they didn’t take the Rwandans. Someone was video taping and it fast forwards back to where the group was standing, begging to be let onto the plane to leave. Their bodies were lying in that same spot, so it’s almost as if as soon as [the Americans] got on the plane to leave, the militia came in and killed them. That stuck with me for years.”
When the Hollywood movies came out — most notably, Don Cheadle’s Oscar-nominated performance in “Hotel Rwanda” — Brown said people began to see the emotional magnitude of the catastrophe.
However, Brown recalled that he walked out of that film feeling a little uncomfortable, but wasn’t entirely sure why.
“I love Don and my response was to tell everyone that you have to go see it,” he said.
“I saw ‘Sometimes in April,’ and I was completely blown away by [Idris Elba’s] performance. Then I saw [another PBS documentary] ‘The Ghosts of Rwanda,’ which really gave an insight into the history and politics of the country.”
Added Brown: “But it wasn’t until I went to Rwanda, went to the genocide museum, spoke to Rwandans, that I started to get a fuller picture of what happened in that country, from the arrival of the Belgians and the Germans. I had to tell a story people hadn’t seen.
“One of the biggest things in ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ and I’m not necessarily saying it’s an inaccuracy because it’s something we [filmmakers] do, it’s easier to make heroes out of some and villainize others. [HR] did that very easily, it made a hero out of one man, but in war things are more complex. The Rwandans are not particular happy with him or that film, because if you didn’t have money you couldn’t get into that hotel, and if you ran out of money you were kicked out. Rwandans made that clear to me over and over again.”
Despite that, Brown believes the crucial thing is to move forward, and though he says the post-genocide Rwanda government that was aided by a Ugandan military force that halted the mass killings, is still dealing with the after-effects, it’s “one of the most beautiful places on the planet.”
“I wrote this film for Rwandans, I kept them in the forefront of my thinking and my heart,” he said. “It would literally take 10,000 years to prosecute everybody who participated in what happened. So the government that went inside adopted policies of truth and reconciliation. They had re-education in Kocha courts, traditional local courts where people could face their accusers, and implemented different methods for the country to move on and not just be mired in litigation and vengeance.”